The Arrow and the Target: Understanding Music's Place in Worship

 

God gave us an incredible gift in music. As Martin Luther said, "Music is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God."  

I've always been a music fanatic. I remember even as a small child playing the same song over and over and over again, singing at the top of my lungs. I'm a heart guy; I've always been moved to strongly express myself with music. I just do it by default. And since I've been saved, this desire is tied to the recognition of the sinfulness of my flesh, the pressure and pain of the world around me, and ultimately the hope rooted in knowing that none of these things have the power to snatch me out of God's hand, that Jesus Christ has secured my future and overcome the world in what he did on the cross.

Though I seem to understand it in an emotional sense, over the years I've had to do some serious thinking about why music is used in our church services, particularly since I'm one of the people responsible for this aspect of the Sunday service in our local body. I think we often worship music. Sometimes we even worship our worship services. I get the "I really loved your worship today" comment often. My typical response is, "Did you worship, too?" Or, sometimes, I get the reverse: "I just couldn't worship because the guitar was out of tune." I want to ask if they also can’t love their wife when they’re out on a date simply because the restaurant has bad service.  

Worship is not music. The term "worship" is simply the basic acknowledgment that something or someone is greater and worth more than anything else. Whatever I value most, long for most, desire to talk about and express the most, that is what I worship. 

So, if music isn't worship, why do we use music in our Sunday service? Whenever we attempt to put structure in our lives, the Bible is the authoritative place to begin. The Bible is full of declarations of godly people singing to God. Psalm 9:11, 30:4, 66:2-4, 95:1-2, 100:2, 105:2, 135:3, for example, specifically command us to sing. These commands should be reason enough for the Christian to sing, but I think we can examine it further.

Romans 8:22-23 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Further on in Romans 8:26, Paul writes, “. . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Neither of these passages is specifically referring to music, but they do speak to a type of communication that goes beyond words, a very personal method of receiving and giving thoughts and feelings. Music affects us emotionally and physically. It creates a mood and softens our hearts. It aids our memory and focuses our attention (or distracts, depending on the music/context). If you don't agree with me, imagine watching your favorite movie without the soundtrack playing.

Through music we express things that we cannot express in words. A minor chord progression resonates with the tension in our souls. A key change or octave jump stirs our hearts. We suddenly have an understanding of a concept that goes much deeper than if we had simply read the lyrics of the song. In music, God has given us a way to create fertile ground in the soul, and then apply His truth to that fertility. In this action, He is seen for who he is – lifted up, set apart – and we are moved to repentance, to rejoicing and to drawing closer to Him.

The Bible, our source of all truth, references moments when people worshipping could be heard up to 10 miles away from the temple, and other times people were in silence, flat on their faces. It refers to body language used in worship: clapping, singing, bowing, kneeling, lifting hands, shouting, dancing, standing in awe. 

The bottom line: God didn't make us to be disembodied spirits, nor are we just chemicals and biology. We can't separate ourselves from emotions when we get excited or sad. Nor can we distill worship of God down to intellectual discussion of truths. God's command is to love him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we engage our whole selves in declaring God is greater and worth more than anything (worshipping!), bodies and emotions included, He is pleased.

I think that's permission enough to let loose and sing out. But don't lose yourself in the electric guitar. Lose yourself in Jesus. Don't crave 35 minutes of emotional engagement. Crave emotional engagement with Jesus. Overtones and harmonics are incredible, but Jesus is more incredible because he created them. Music should be an arrow, pointing you toward the target of God.

So, on Sunday morning as I sing and play my guitar, the music should simply facilitate your already worshipping hearts to join in gathering around Jesus, the Glorious One. Together we can lose ourselves in that great human emotion which cannot co-exist with pride and selfishness.

Adoration.

So Which Are Ya Then? Unity and Humility in the Cross

 

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:14–18)

 

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

 

Divisions aren’t hard to come by. A careful eye will find them and, to some degree, we all have careful eyes. For better or (mostly) worse, we find comfort in distinctions. The standard greeting in Northern Ireland is simply “So which are ya then?” To which, one is expected to reply with “Protestant” or “Catholic.”

So which are ya then? Home schooler or public schooler? Boomer or Buster? Buster or Millennial? Redneck or hipster? Organic or conventional? Reformed or Arminian? SUV owner or Prius owner? Moral values champion or seeker of social justice?

Here’s a question: is Jesus for divisions or against them? Did he come to build distinctions or destroy them? Your answer defines your life as a disciple. 

In Ephesians 2, Paul explains that the old division between the circumcised Jew and uncircumcised Gentile has been destroyed and, yet, Jesus is clear that he came not to bring peace but a dividing sword. 

Now, we need some clarity here because, again, we are starting at the headwaters of our way of living. Jesus came to create divisions and destroy them. We lose when we confuse the ones he created with the ones he destroyed. 

Let’s suppose a prominent communicator tells a room full of Christians rallied to a cause that there are two problems in the world. The first problem is that our secular culture has embraced a particular sin, and the second is that our churches have cowardly backed away from preaching against this sin. He has created divisions between the audience and the sin-embracing culture, and between the audience and the cowardly church. If Jesus created some divisions it doesn’t follow that these divisions are necessarily wrong simply because they are divisions. But are these particular divisions wrong? To answer that, let’s examine what this message might do to the audience. 

The audience now has a reason to separate from the secularists “out there” and from the cowardly church. They came to hear this message with some sort of burden to address a particular evil and they left with one less check and a new bony finger to wag. Succinctly, they left with a reason to feel superior. The Bible calls that one pride. 

Now, Jesus found himself in front of a variety of crowds that were clear on the problem “out there.”  The curious thing about Jesus is that he rarely dealt with what was “out there.” He started by poking at the gathered crowd’s sternum. It was a practice that eventually got him killed. 

Let’s suppose our prominent communicator addressed the crowd with a different message. Let’s say he pointed out that the problem in the world is that we are ALL inclined to reject God and trust in idols of our own making. For instance, the audience may find some sense of “rightness” in the fact that they are rallied to an important cause and they might feel better because they came out and wrote a check. If so, their attendance had become a non-God source of righteousness. By connecting that tendency to the inclination that those “out there” have toward evil, he could call “everyone everywhere to repent” (like Jesus in Luke 12:2-3, and Peter in Acts 2:38). It is a way to crush pride without removing zeal for righteousness – to retain the brokenhearted-ness over sin while removing the superiority complex. This is how the cross of Jesus destroys dividing walls of hostility.

The cross testifies that we all, universally, are idolaters and that that inward idolatry is a shockingly serious issue to God – regardless of the outward manifestation of that idolatry.

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me . . .’” (Mark 7:6)

 

The cross, then, unites those who simply acknowledge that they are sinners regardless of flavor – adulterers of the worst kind, cheaters on God who can only be made right by God. It unites them while keeping them humble and zealous for God and good (Titus 2:11-14). The cross creates brokenhearted ambassadors for Christ who seek reconciliation of all kinds of sinners to the God who has absorbed his own wrath against their sin. Every other rallying point, while attempting to unite, creates pride and division.

Jesus does bring one division, then, and it is simply between those who would trust in his grace and those who would mock it. So...which are ya then?

May our ministry to each other and the world foster the unity and humility that only comes by rallying around the cross of Christ.

If Jesus Gave a TED Talk

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross." – Colossians 1:15-20

 

In our fast-paced, globalized, and attention-deficit world, we are consistently searching for something new. In Acts 17, though, we are told that this is not a modern phenomenon: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

I can do this now from the comfort of my home, easily finding anyone in the Internet world (“twitterverse” is one of my particularly favorite terms) that agrees with my conspiracy theories, or someone to rage against on a message board. We are very Athenian. And as John Piper said, “This is not a compliment.”

At a recent staff meeting for the school where I teach high school students, we watched a TED Talk saying that the way we teach needs to change. Rather than drilling the answer into kids, we should encourage creativity and “divergent thinking” (TED Talks, while very interesting, often remind me of the Athenian setting of constantly gathering to find something “new”). While I agree that many forms of education as we know them are stale and underutilize the resources available to us, there is a great danger in this idea, namely that we will create Athenians—or, rather, reinforce our natural Athenian tendencies.

I can see this in the way that my mind works. I tend to drift in and out of encouragement, depression, excitement, laziness, diligence, and a variety of other emotions. In all honesty, as I write this I am most acutely fighting a streak of discouragement. When I am not encouraged in the gospel, I can have the tendency to cheer on ideas that lead to divergent thinking.

This is sin, or more specifically, idolatry. If only I can find a way to be celebrated for my creativity, find the cool thing before anyone else (this is the closeted hipster within me), or produce something meaningful, then I will find joy. These are lies that I believe. Do my students, my neighbors, or I need new ideas, new answers, or “divergent thinking?” No. We need Colossians 1. 

Imagine if the homepage of every website or the headline of every newspaper read, “Jesus is King” or “God is reconciling all things to himself through the cross of Christ.” We would be tempted to say that this would be boring – always hearing the same message in every arena and in all forms – but this is what God proclaims in creation and in the Word. Every “new” solution or answer is dishonest and denies reality.

I would love to write those articles or create those webpages. They would give me a chance to practice 2 Corinthians 10:5, taking “every thought captive to Christ,” to bring my thoughts and the events of history in line with reality. My article about the cross-country meet I was at yesterday, titled “Jesus is our Champion,” would be about how our desire for sports and contests is really a reflection of our longing to see the true champion return. Or, an article about a drive-by shooting, titled “God is both Just and Justifier,” could tell of God’s anger at sin as well as his grace, compassion, and sadness for both the suspect and the victim, with the reminder that this is not our home. These articles would allow us a chance to dwell upon the preeminence and supremacy of Christ in all aspects of life.

God has created amazing diversity and given us millions of gifts for us to enjoy and with which to create. All of that is not for us to neglect and circle the wagons, nor to create a world of a million divergent, “coexisting” answers. We must not neglect that all of this was made by, through, and for Jesus. He is the answer by which all of our divergent experiences converge and give us joy.

Missions Mentoring at Summitview

It was once said that the true greatness of a church is demonstrated not in how many it seats but in how many it sends. That statement seems to line up well with the Biblical pattern.

Jesus travelled Palestine for three years and spoke to untold thousands of people, most of whom were completely overwhelmed by what they saw and heard. But upon completion of his earthly ministry, the number of people claiming an allegiance to Jesus was unimpressive at best. Acts 1 records only 120 people in the company of believers immediately after Jesus’ ascension, even though more than 5,000 had seen him multiply the loaves and fish, and more than 500 had seen him after his resurrection.

Similarly, Paul mentions in 2 Timothy, his final letter, that everyone in Ephesus had deserted him at his first defense. After decades of ministry in Asia Minor, nobody in the region was willing to associate with Paul during his time of greatest need. There were only a few people scattered abroad – Timothy, Luke and others – that endured. So it seems that upon their deaths, the two most influential men in history left behind what could be described as a very meager following.

While meager numerically, those followers were not meager in power and effect. Jesus and Paul had developed men and women that were ready, willing and eager to take the message around the world. If we measure by sending, Jesus and Paul had extraordinarily successful ministries indeed.
 
The temptation, however, will always be to measure church success by more tangible and recognizable standards. It takes intentional effort to become and remain a “sending” rather than a “seating” church, but that’s our goal. And specifically, we want to send people to places where there is very little gospel witness, which often means international settings. The problem, though, is that cross-cultural ministry in a foreign setting is profoundly difficult. Every international work our church has been involved with has encountered unexpected and nearly overwhelming challenges.

It’s easy to be naïve about those challenges, imagining that a heart for the nations is all that is needed for effective missionary work, but the reality is that foreign missionaries need training. It takes stellar character and an assortment of unique skills. We currently have a course of training for potential pastors, called Aspire, because we believe that the work of a pastor requires intentional preparation. But does it not require just as much intention to develop overseas missionaries? Will not their challenges be just as intense if not more so?
 
With that in mind, we are in the early stages of developing a “missions mentoring” program to intentionally train and assess potential overseas workers. We are working to create a curriculum of study that will adequately prepare men and women for missions in a foreign setting. But this program is not to be simply informational. We believe effective training needs to be incorporated into a community environment with hands-on experiences. We’re therefore combining missions mentoring with our existing international student ministry. We hope to provide potential missionaries cross-cultural experiences right here in Fort Collins, uniting with like-minded people in close community to reach international students with the gospel.

We are extremely excited to see this take shape, trusting that men and women will be trained and sent to places where a gospel witness is desperately needed. May our church reflect the ministry of Jesus – developing men and women ready and willing to be sent.

God, Christians and Coffee

 

Fill in the blank:

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we _________.

I used to despise and avoid the book of 1 John because of the confusion it caused me.

When I was young, I used to despise the taste of coffee. Too bitter, too strong, and too surprising to my taste buds.

I started drinking coffee three years ago. The acquired taste has grown on me a lot. I drink it every day.

A while back, I caught wind that we were going to go through the book of 1 John at Summitview on Sunday mornings. I spent the next three weeks going through the book again and again in my quiet times. I now have an acquired taste for 1 John that continues to grow.

In the midst of all the black-and-white verses, the surprising verses, the circles of thinking, two verses stood out to me: 1 John 5:2-3.

What did you fill in the blank with above?

Here's the answer:

“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” – 1 John 5:2-3

This one surprised me. I would have thought that I love my brothers and sisters by praying for them, serving them, sacrificing for them. Yet this verse says if you want to love fellow Christians, then love God. How do you love God? Keep his commandments.

1 John 2:4-5 says, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him.”

So if I say I know God, if I'm truly in Him, I'll obey him. In so doing, I'll fulfill the great commandment: Love God and love people. By obeying God, I love God. By loving God, I love Christians.

This idea has really made me check my heart when I got to spend time with believers. Am I loving God? Am I abiding in Him? Is my heart aligned with him so that I obey him? Is He my greatest desire?

It's been refreshing, the times I recognize this, as it brings a vertical component into time with other believers. Instead of fretting trying to meet horizontal needs merely through my own means, I'm trusting that abiding in God and obeying Him is perhaps the most powerful first step in loving believers around me.

I love the taste of the book of 1 John. It's an acquired one. I want to enjoy its stirring aroma and taste everyday.

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